Rarely in the history of Danish cinema has there been a safer bet than the film-series Zentropa is currently making on Jussi Adler-Olsens books about Department Q. The books about the investigative squad consisting of Carl Mørck, Assad and their assistant Rose has sold over 1.2 million books in Denmark, and 6 million in the rest of the world. With actors like Nikolaj Lie Kaas, and Swede Fares Fares playing the central detectives, as well as Sonja Richter and Pilou Asbæk playing victims and murderers in the two films, the series doesn’t lack star-power. And then there is director Mikkel Nørgård, who with these two films as well as his debut comedy Klovn has made three of the four biggest box-office openings in Danish history. It should have come as no surprise when The Absent One broke box office records at its opening in October. And really, it should only come as a slightly bigger surprise that the film is as enjoyable, exciting, and just all around good as it is.
The slight surprise at the quality of the film comes from the fact that an adaptation of Jussi Adler-Olsen’s books could quite well have gone quite wrong. I will freely admit that I’ve only managed to make it through a combined 50 pages of his crime series, but already from that small sampling it was clear that Mikkel Nørgård made some very smart adaptational choices. Adler-Olsen is not very good at language, but the film lets us learn about the characters through the way that they act and look, rather than what they say. And Adler-Olsen’s crime plots aren’t really the main draw either. I have yet to meet anybody who didn’t figure out the story behind the central kidnapping in The Keeper of Lost Causes way earlier than the detectives did, and in The Absent One, the film just comes right out and states the identity of the killers pretty much from the beginning. What the books seem to have, and what the films wisely focus on, is a tremendous sense of mood. The Absent One takes us from the highest highs of society to the lowest lows. From the modernistic luxury homes north of Copenhagen to the homeless individuals dwelling in the rundown areas in the center. Nørgård contrasts these two spheres brilliantly. All the rich bad guys have homes or offices with amazing views over water, they are masters and controllers of the world. The poor people live in cramped and claustrophobic areas, that doesn’t oversee anything. If this sounds like a simplistic film where rich=bad, then that’s kind of true. The series is about detectives solving old and dormant cases,but really, as with so much Nordic Crime Fiction, it’s about looking at the sins and crimes of Danish society. In the first film, it was a Social Democrat whose past came back to haunt her. This time, it’s entitled rich psychopaths ruining everything around them. Pilou
Asbæk is masterful as Ditlev Pramm, the embodiment of careless capitalism, with hipster glasses and carefully groomed facial hair, attacking, using and threatening everybody to get his way. David Dencik has the less impressive role as Ulrik Dybbøl, the perverted aristocrat with the big country mansion. They are types, but they are well-made types This is not a particularly subtle film. We do not get a sense of the brokenness of detective.
Mørck from Lie Kaas’ performance as much as from the bandages and bloodshot red eyes he acquires from the film. And we understand the depravity of the bad guys from how they present themselves. The image of the upper-class killers dressed entirely in black clothes and a white hoods owes quite a lot as an image to film-monsters like Alex from A Clockwork Orange or Peter and Paul from Haneke’s Funny Games, but it’s an effective creation that remains scary throughout the whole film. And as the pieces of the crime plot falls into place, the film changes into more of a horror film, the scenography becomes fully theatrical, and characters always seems able to turn up at the most inopportune moment without explanation. That does not detract from the film, though. It only makes it more effective.